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Reading Class: A review of Sally Rooney’s “Normal People”

Book cover of Sally Rooney’s Normal People.

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That’s money, the substance that makes the world real. There’s something so corrupt and sexy about it.

Sally Rooney’s novel, Normal People, follows the lives of Connell and Marianne, two high school students from Sligo, West Ireland, and their journey’s of self discovery, love, and friendship. The story is built on the foundations of class barriers between Connell and Marianne and the subsequent misunderstandings they have over these social divisions.

Connell’s mother works as a cleaner for Marianne’s family. From the beginning of the novel, this divide of money, prestige, and power is palpable. Yet, it is not quite so black and white because despite all the wealth and class privilege that Marianne has access to, her family is extremely dysfunctional. Her mother is absent, her father is dead, and her brother is extremely abusive and violent towards her. Marianne, despite all her wealth, is broken.

Connell can see that Marianne struggles with her family and through their on-again off-again relationship in the novel Marianne reveals parts of her family trauma. Despite how close Marianne and Connell get, there is still a disconnect between them. A rift that is completely born out of class struggles—what the working class is taught to believe about the rich, and what the rich fail to see in the working class. In this regard, the novel is frustrating to read. It is like watching two people get angry at each other whilst play tennis, and neither of them realises they are on different courts.

Access to education is another major part of Rooney’s novel as several characters discuss access to scholarships, means testing, and meritocracy in throughout Ireland and the U.K. This discussion is close to my heart when I think of my own upbringing and education. I was one of the lucky ones that slipped through the cracks and came out of the other side and found success. Both Marianne and Connell receive a scholarship, but the impact of this is extremely different for both.

“Marianne, who didn’t pay her own rent or tuition and has no real concept of how much these things cost, it’s just a matter of reputation.”

“For him the scholarship is a gigantic material fact, like a vast cruise ship that has sailed into view out of nowhere, and suddenly he can do a postgraduate programme for free if he wants to, and live in Dublin for free, and never think about rent again until he finishes college. Suddenly he can spend an afternoon in Vienna looking Vermeer’s The Arts of Painting and it’s hot outside, and if he wants he can buy himself a cheap cold glass of beer afterwards.”

The brain space that is freed up when people are not worrying about money, their next rent payment, how they will buy food, or how they will get a new winter coat is unfathomable. The freedom it gives people to just think and be without the worry of money is something that is not afforded to many people in the world. It allows people to get degrees and pursue their dreams.

Many people have suggested that class discussions are making a comeback in the twenty-first century, yet I would argue that class was always there. It was always an issue. Poor people have existed the whole time that we weren’t supposedly talking about class. How poverty intersects with gender, race, and religion were always there too. It’s just the people who decide what is ‘important’ were just not listening.

Sally Rooney has quickly become one of my favourite authors. Irish women are making real waves in the literary world of late and I cannot wait to see where this is going to go. What books are you reading that challenge the way you think about class today? As always, share the reading love.

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